Primary evidence of Rural Population Change

Since I mentioned population change in Early American cities yesterday and suggested there was an untold story about the countryside, I thought I'd say something about that from my own research. During the years I was in New England, I made a lot of trips to Ashfield Massachusetts. First because it was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, and then because it was the home of the peppermint oil industry in its first phase of growth. I spent a lot of time looking at population records: census, town tax lists, and the Vital Records book. Here are some observations:

I looked at Ashfield records between the years 1790 and 1840.  Ashfield was established in the 1760s and mostly settled in the late 1760s and 1770s, after the danger of Indian raids diminished.  By the first national census in 1790, there were 257 people counted as heads of household.  The town was nearly full, and the
family* count ranged from 274 to 298 throughout the rest of this half-century.


In my first pass through the data, I noticed there weren’t many people present in Ashfield at the end of fifty years who had been there at the beginning.  We start with 257 families and end up with 289.  But although some of the same large, extended families are represented (the Williamses, the Smiths, the Phillipses), only 15 actual heads of households made it across the decades from the first census to the last. In 1840 Ashfield, there were 274 new families who hadn’t been there fifty years earlier, and nearly all of the original families were gone.

Of course, you say.  The old guys died, and their sons took over. This result fits right into the mainstream interpretation of rural America.  And you’d be right, but only to a point.  132 of the old guys did in fact die.  And 181 of the people living in Ashfield over these years were sons who'd stayed in town.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

A first-to-last comparison that looks at only the 1790 and 1840 data misses all the action in between.  You'd think, okay, there was an almost complete turnover in families, but what the heck? It was fifty years, and anyway about half those new people are sons.  But when you look at all the census years, it turns out there were people coming and going all the time.  The first-to-last comparison only sees the net change, not the total change.

And this is where it gets interesting. The standard history of New England towns says that after the construction of the Erie Canal, hardscrabble hilltown farms could no longer compete with western commercial agriculture.  The soils were exhausted and young people wanted to live in cities or run bigger farms out West.  So you’d expect a big exodus around the late 1820s and 1830s.  That’s where you’d begin to be surprised.

Between the 1790 census and the 1800, 117 families disappear from the original 257 Ashfield households and 142 new ones arrive in town.  From 1800 to 1810, it happens again.  140 families move out, and are replaced by 157 new families.  Every ten years, roughly half the residents of Ashfield leave, to be replaced by new faces.

In all, between 1790 and 1840, 644 families left Ashfield and 678 families moved in. Twice as many people moved out of Ashfield as ever lived there at one time, and an even larger number arrived from somewhere else, each bringing their own unique heritage, family loyalties, religious and political affiliations, etc. The quiet, isolated, inwardly focused community of the traditional history turns out to be a lot more dynamic than expected.

And this is only half the story.  181 sons carried on their family presence in Ashfield between 1790 and 1840, many of them replacing the 132 old patriarchs who died.  But there are
800 sons recorded in the Ashfield Vital Records.  What happened to the rest?

Actually, there were more than 800, but exactly 800 lived to majority (there were as many girls, but unfortunately, they’re invisible in the data).  181 settled in Ashfield between 1790 and 1840, and either died there or were still present at the end of my study period.  That leaves 619 sons who often married a local girl but then went somewhere else to start their families.  Add these to the families who disappeared from the census data, and you have over 1,200 families leaving a town that never had more than 300  resident families. That's some dramatic churning.

The data for one town don't prove anything about the rest of Early America, of course -- although I've got no reason to believe that Ashfield was particularly unique in its population change. The reason I think these results are significant is that  they suggest a much higher degree of connectedness between places traditionally considered isolated. Many Ashfielders I've studied such as the
Ranneys, Bements, and Beldings moved west to upstate New York and Michigan and retained close ties with family and friends left behind. Others such as John Bement and George Goodwin, moved to cities (Philadelphia and Boston) and became urban businessmen. I think the movement of people suggested by this data suggests a corresponding movement of ideas and mentalities that ought to inform our thinking about the country and the city in Early America.

A note about the data: the only thing recorded on early census sheets of this period was the name of a “household head.”  No ages, occupations, incomes, origins.  Worse still, no women, unless they were widows or spinsters (just three in the fifty-year range I looked at), and definitely no children.  That info has to come from somewhere else.  Thankfully, there are Vital Records  books for most Massachusetts towns.  I’m going to call the units I talk about families, because in nearly all cases they are.  You can count on one hand the number of single men whose names made it into the Ashfield census.  So, when I say “289 families,” think “husband, wife, and six kids,” because that’s the typical family the units represent.